The sheer size of the building is enough to give pause, and the night is brisk and biting as we make our way to one of the many entrances. Once we’re inside, the bright lights, the thickening crowds, and the smell of popcorn combine to make the space feel more like a circus ring than a theater, a fact made all the more apparent by the 360 degree auditorium. The ushers greet us warmly before directing us to our seats, and the room is already filled to the brim, mostly with families with small wide-eyed children. Plaster replicas of Victorian London clock towers line the periphery of the space, and a short, three-legged stool and tiny crutch adorn the stage – the shadows of things to come.
The North Shore Music Theatre has had its many ups and downs over the past decade, but thanks to the concerted efforts of 2012 Salem and Beverly Chambers of Commerce Business Person of the Year Bill Hanney and local favorite David Coffee (Ebenezer Scrooge), the theatre has not only made a full recovery, but is thriving here on the North Shore. This year’s production of A Christmas Carol, which will host just 13 performances, is a testament to what the theatre’s been able to achieve in such a short time.
For this year’s production, former Artistic Director Jon Kimbell, with the help of David James and David Zoffoli, returns for the fifth time to direct the Moss Hart Award-winning adaptation he created nearly 25 years ago for the theatre in the round. Now in it’s 21st year, A Christmas Carol has become a beloved tradition here on the North Shore, and features both traditional as well as original music composed and arranged by Alby Potts and James Woodland. David Coffee also returns as the infamous Scrooge as he has done since the show’s original production in 1989. Other notable cast members include: Tommy Labanaris as the Narrator, Leigh Barrett as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Peter S. Adams as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dan Reardon as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and Freddie Kimmel as the Jacob Marley.
As the lights dim, the bells of the clock towers chime and the narrator, crutch in hand, steps onto the stage as ringmaster for Christmas’s “Greatest Show on Earth.” NSMT’s production of Dickens’ Christmas classic is a musical ghost story of extravagant proportions, and the over-the-top performances are nothing if not theatrical. Coffee, as would be expected, is legendary as Scrooge, a part which Dickens seems to have written with him in mind; Leigh Barrett, also a member of the original 1989 cast, is shining as both Mrs. Cratchitt and the Ghost of Christmas Past; and, also in her 21st year with the show, Cheryl McMahon continues to stun crowds with her portrayal of Mrs. Dilbur, Scrooge’s opportunistic maid easily spooked by phantasmagorias.
Perhaps the most thrilling moment of the night, however, occurs when the impressively shackled Jacob Marley, expertly portrayed by Freddie Kimmel, swoops in from the eaves, frightening both Ebenezer and all the present children nearly out of their wits. His costuming, makeup, and choreography provide a genius otherworldly effect, the indisputable highlight of the production.
Yet, despite these standout performances, it’s the set design itself which is most captivating aspect of the performance. Cast members rise from beneath the stage, fly in over the audiences head, and swoop in on trolleys. Garland-encrusted lamp posts drop in from the rafters, entire Victorian-styled rooms emerge speedily from the floor, and this is only the beginning. The production’s gratuitous use of pyrotechnics in the form of deafening M-80s at several points throughout the performance is a unique touch the imaginative Dickens never would have envisioned, but it’s certainly a crowd pleaser.
Kimbell’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol is not an event for the bookish or the faint of heart, but a spectacle to delight those of youthful spirit. An incomparable extravaganza of light and sound, the performance will bedazzle and amaze, and help you to understand that the true meaning of Christmas isn’t simply composed of love and friendship, but fireworks.